Winter’s garden Ah, the moon, a silvery thread As insects hmmm
fuyu niwa ya tsuki mo ito naru mushi no gin
冬庭や 月もいとなる むしの吟
2nd year of Genroku, at a tea ceremony with Ichinyū celebrating Banzan.
Winter, 2nd year of Genroku, 1689
At least one modern day student of Basho dates this haiku to 1689 and adds, “on meeting Ichinyū at a celebration held by Banzan.”
Ichinyū was a lay Buddhist teacher and seven year Basho’s senior. By trade he was a traditional tea potter, fourth generation Raku. Ichinyū lived and worked in Kyoto, which suggests that he was an old friend from Basho’s student days.
Kumazawa Banzan was a follower of Confucius, an advocate of agricultural reform who ran afoul of the Shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. Beginning in 1687, Bashan was confined to Koga Castle in Ibaraki Prefecture, making it likely that the occasion for writing this haiku was not a meeting with Banzan, but a celebration ofBanzan’s writings that took place at a tea ceremony in Kyoto hosted by Ichinyū.
We should perhaps give Basho credit here for political commentary. I read this haiku as, “the peasants (i.e. insects) continue through winter’s darkness to work (hmmm) for the Imperial court and the samurai class.
Notes on this haiku
The 2nd year of Genroku refers to the reign of Emperor Higashiyama.
Those who garden know that a winter’s garden, fuyu niwa ya, 冬庭や, has but a few plants and fewer insects. The ending character や, ya, turns this phrase into an interjection expressing surprise which I’ve added to the next line. An early frost shrivels the leaves and stills the sounds of the insects who feed on the plants. To me, it is remarkable after an early frost to hear a solitary insect humming. This insect has perhaps burrowed down deep in the earth, found a dung hill, or huddled next to the house to survive the icy cold. And the next day, in the warmth of the sun, merrily goes about its work.
Tsuki mo ito naru. Tsuki is our familiar moon in all its phases. Naru is the verb form for becoming. Mo ito, literally, like a thread, giving us the sense that the moon is waning to a “silvery thread.”
Mushi no Gin, the sound of insects. I render this as “insects hmmm.” Those familiar with Matsuo Basho’s haiku know that as a Zen poet, he was fascinated with the sound of things, whether it was a cricket under a helmet, a frog jumping in an old pond, or insects in rocks.
Master of Hokku Matsuo Tosei At home on the First Day of Spring
The Sound of Hokku Matsuo Tosei At home on the First Day of Spring
発句なり 松尾桃青 宿の春
Hokku nari Matsuo Toosei Yado no haru.
Becoming a Master of Haiku
Spring 1678, a new year, a new beginning. Matsuo was not yet Matsuo Basho, not quite yet. First he would proclaim himself “master of the haiku”. 発句なり, Hokku nari.
Notes on Translation
The two characters なり, nari, literally translate as “to be” or “the sound of” haiku. The second translation (the sound of haiku) reminds one of Basho’s famous haiku about the frog and the sound of water.
One should not be surprised that there are at least two translations of the same words and the same poem. Basho was student of The Dao (The Way), which teaches that the Way is eternal and changing, that words have more than one meaning. This is literally expressed as, “The name (word) that can be named is not the eternal name.” Tao de Ching.
Matsuo Toosei, Basho’s moniker before he became Basho. Toosei means “green peach”. The peach was a symbol of immortality and a long life, but a “green” peach is one not quite famous, a “newby” hoping to achieve fame and immortality as a poet. Basho would not ripen into “Basho” banana until two years later when he moved from Edo to the Fukagawa neighborhood. There he lived in a hut next to a banana tree given to him as a gift by a student.
Yado no haru, 宿の春. Haru, 春, literally “Spring,” but also either the first of the year or New Year. Yado, literally, lodging.
An old pond, A frog jumps Makes the sound of the water
An old pond, A frog jumps Water speaks!
Furu ike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto
古池 蛙飛び込む 水の音
Must I explain?
A message so simple, even a child can understand. The frog jumps, the water speaks. Be the frog, be the water, one acts, the other reacts. It is a Zen thing, if you have to explain, you don’t get it. Like a solitary cloud on a summer’s day. Like a blade of grass waving in the wind. Like a buttercup in a sea of green. It is something special that a child understands and an adult forgets.
Matsuo Basho, Japan’s renown haiku master of the 17th century had nothing to say of politics. Yes, nothing at all.
This may seem surprising for Basho was born in Iga Province which was known for its Ninja traditions. And, it is said, because of their Samurai background, and the family name, Matsuo, the family was accorded a farm.
Matsuo had brothers and sisters. We may guess the farm was not so large, for Matsuo (he was not Basho yet) left the ox and the plow and served Yoshitada Todo whose father was Todo Shinshichiro, a samurai general in charge of the Iga region. Matsuo’s master, Yoshitada had an affinity for poetry, and perhaps that is how Matsuo got his start. But Yoshitada died and Matsuo went to Kyoto to study.
By the age of 28, Matsuo compiled a book of haiku verse called Kai Oi (Shell Matching), which he dedicated to the Ueno Tenjingu Shinto Shrine. Soon after he left for Edo, capital to the ruling Shogun, Tokugawa Ietsuna . Like a child in a candy store, he immersed himself in the sights and sounds of the bustling Nihonbashi District, with its theater, music, performers, and exotic food stalls. In time he gathered students who came to him for instruction.
Enough, he said. And so he moved to the quieter Fukagawa District, across the Sumida River to a simple hut where he was given a banana as a housewarming gift. In time the banana grew to a tree. Battered by the wind, its leaves sometimes tattered, this otherwise useless tree provided some shade.
Fame follows Matsuo. Haiku are written, students gather. In time the banana plant becomes a tree. The banana tree is like me, Matsuo said. And that is how he became Matsuo Basho, “Matsuo the Banana”, or as he himself would say, a useless banana, blown to and fro by the wind, good for little, but to give shade.
How less political can one be.
Let me be an observer of life, he said. Let me listen and see what I hear. Haiku has its roots in Taoism, Buddhism, and Shintoism. It is an art form which attempts to express ideas in a simple verse form consisting of seventeen syllables. No more, no less, though sometimes Basho would stretch or break this rule.
This would inspire what is perhaps Basho’s greatest haiku.
An old pond, a from jumps in, the sound of water, Aha!
古池 蛙飛び込む 水の音
This is not to say that Basho did not speak of distant politics and war. He admired loyalty. He admired lost cause, but he found melancholy in such loss. Thus, when thinking of General Sanemori who died in battle in 1183, he wrote the following haiku.
How piteous! Beneath the warrior’s helmet A cricket cries.
むざんや な甲の下の きりぎりす
muzan ya na/ kabuto no shita no/ kirigirisu
One almost wonders, if Basho thought, what is the point? What is the point of politics, to those who are born on a farm, to those who put down their swords, and take up the pen to write a poem?
This post was written in January of 2012 in the midst of the impeachment of President Donald Trump. The author expresses no opinion on the current political situation.
Being rushed, I give a forget-the-year party In a good mood, I wonder?
Setsuka rete Toshi wasure suru Kigen kana
せつかれて 年忘れする 機嫌かな
Forget the Year
I have no year for which to date Matsuo Basho’s New Year’s haiku. The winter of 1682 is a likely year, for his Banana Hut was destroyed in a fire. The following year his mother died. There are perhaps other likely candidates, but I don’t suppose we will know.
This haiku is like a scrap of paper fallen from a pocket as one fiddles about for change to feed the parking meter when rushing about on New Year’s Eve.
Of course it is now January 2021. Being rushed by the holidays, worried about a pandemic, and an election crisis, I almost forgot to celebrate the passing of 2020. Or, Basho would agree, I simply wanted to forget an awful 2020.
In 17th century Japan, Japanese families prepared for the New Year’s Eve party by rushing to a Shinto shrine to venerate their ancestors. For this reason, December is given the name Shiwasu, 師走, which translates as the “month of running priests” who are busy sweeping up and setting out candles. At the temples and shrines, wishes for the new year must be made, and newomamori (charms) bought and old ones returned to be be burned.
Today, as back then, there is a bit of sadness mixed in with gladness. The Japanese call these New Year’s parties 忘年会, bonenkai, literally forget the year party. For Basho, this becomes 年忘れする, toshi wasure suru, forget the year. Perhaps it was a bad year.
We all have those. And come the New Year don’t we wish to be in a good mood, 機嫌Kigen. I wonder,かな, kana. And don’t some like to keep grudges. Hmmm?
正月が二日有ても皺手哉 shôgatsu ga futsuka arite mo shiwade kana
New Year, Second Day, but already wrinkled hands
First Month, Second Day but already wrinkled hands
I suppose that the first thing a child notices about an aging mother, before the gray hair, are the veins and wrinkles that appear on a mother’s careworn hands.
Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa (1763 – 1828) offers up this guest haiku. Basho would not object, ther is much to learn from others.
The pen name, Issa (一茶), means “cup of tea” which summarizes the subject matter of Issa’s poems — things to his liking, simple things to be enjoyed, something to think over. Issa gives no date for his poem, but we can guess that he was already advanced in years, if not in his understanding of life’s short lease.
There are perhaps two comments worth making. First, that 正月, shôgatsu in Issa’s time meant the first day of spring by the lunar calendar. For that reason, I suppose, if asked, Issa would prefer the literal “First Month, Second Day”.
Second, that Issa’s life was marked by tragedy and sorrow — the death of his first wife and three children, a failed second marriage, and his home burning down. Issa’s response to this was —
In a world of grief and pain Flowers bloom Even then
Issa would enter into a third marriage, but Issa died before the birth of his daughter.